It’s truly exciting to start a new year with some fresh ideas, and they are always found in abundance at the annual BETT show, held at London’s Excel Arena. I was lucky enough to spend two days at the exhibition this year, and viewed it with a slightly different focus now that I have retired. As a senior leader, I was always drawn to investigate whole school management options – and although it was good to meet up with old contacts at stands like Show My Homework, Mint Class, Blue Sky, and It’s Learning – they held rather less of my attention this year.
I found I had more time to probe into different technologies that could have a real positive impact on teaching and learning, and it was refreshing to meet new faces and explore new contacts from these areas. I also had much more time to sit and listen to different presenters and reflect on their thoughts and ideas, rather than rush around to check off items from my school shopping list.
To find BETT somewhat overwhelming was not a new experience, but I couldn’t help but feel technology in schools has become a fully saturated market now. There are so many different options for software and hardware that do particular jobs, that making an informed choice has become increasingly difficult. How the different companies all manage to capture a sufficient market share to maintain their existence baffles me – but perhaps some of them simply do not.
I could wax lyrical about so many products and ideas, but I will restrict myself to writing about just a couple of my highlights from the show. As far as the headline speakers were concerned, I really enjoyed Robert Winston’s eloquent delivery of his presentation about how young children learn, and how this can be related to their exposure to technology at different ages. I found the Secretary of State’s talk far less inspiring, outlining her support for technology in assisting with management and assessment tasks – but saying nothing about how it can assist the creative process in the classroom.
With regard to products, I was excited by the possibilities offered by Google’s new Expedition Project. I wrote a short blog about this back in October, and you can find out what it’s all about at the following link: https://www.google.com/edu/expeditions/
You may also want to register on the site, and open the possibility of the project making a visit to your own school. Although the main resources are not yet openly available to the public, it won’t be long before they are – so it’s worth checking it out now and getting ahead of the game. The expeditions project is a form of virtual reality where some of Google’s massive bank of images are made available for study through a ‘Google Cardboard’ viewer – a simple low-spec tool constructed from card and a couple of lenses, and into which can be slotted a smart ‘phone. There are many different versions available on Amazon for less than a tenner, or you can knock up your own for just a couple of quid. I attended a special demo session where the devices were provided for us to enjoy panoramic views of places like the Great Barrier Reef and the Great Wall of China, while the ‘teacher’ was able to direct our movements from her screen, and prompt us with questions and instructions. Google have already prepared 150 Expeditions for this project, and used BETT to launch new expeditions to the Barrier Reef and also inside Buckingham Palace.
There is currently a limited amount of resources on the market to be enjoyed using a cardboard viewer, mainly accessible through specific apps or via You Tube. Android phones have more to offer at present, but Google will be launching a full IOS version sometime this year. If you have an I Phone, you can at the moment at least download the Google Cardboard app and have a play with a few demonstration images. The flood gates will soon open in this area of technology, and I’m sure it won’t be long before we will all be able to produce our own images for this platform. However impressive this demonstration was, I am not sure how this will work in the classroom right now. Apart from a visit from the Google Expedition team with its collection of cardboards already loaded with a mobile device, it would be difficult to adopt in class without making use of the students own phones. I don’t know of many schools that have sets of phones available for classroom use – although I did wonder if this might be a good use for all of those confiscated ‘phones I used to collect in my office!
Many years ago, I was given the task of setting up a VLE at my school. Staff and students quickly bought into the idea, and it did prove to be a successful support to teaching and learning. However, despite looking at many ‘off the peg’ VLE products at BETT, I have come to the decision that if I were to be given this task today, I could set up an equally efficient, functional and beneficial system from free products from either Google or Microsoft 365. I listened to a number of speakers sharing their experiences of using these systems in their schools, and look forward to the next software upgrade from Apple, which will include a package of management tools for schools. A VLE today would surely look very different from what was available and possible all those years ago.
I particularly enjoyed one short talk from Abdul Chohan from the Essa Academy. He spoke of simplicity and reliability being the two vital ingredients in any technological shift, and outlined how he had used a combination of just a cheap app (Explain Everything) and a free app (I Tunes U) to structure learning. He illustrated his talk with a number of examples, and some of the courses created from Essa on I Tunes U by both staff and students are well worth checking out to see what is possible.
I particularly wanted to visit the Minecraft Education stand, but every time I passed there was a crowd at least three deep all trying to get inside for a seat. I am fascinated by the potential offered by this product for creative work – especially in the geography classroom. I will have to investigate it further under my own steam over the coming weeks. A number of animation products caught my eye, and I look forward to getting to grips with ZU3D, Muvizu, and I Can Animate in the near future. I was also impressed by the Showbie app – and am convinced that if I was still working full-time, this would be a product I would fully embrace.
I like to spend a bit of time in the BETT Futures section, checking out some of the latest innovations on the market. I was impressed by ‘Braingo’ – a slick digital interpretation of bingo that could have a multitude of uses in the classroom. It seemed to be a really well put-together product at a reasonable price – a useful tool for primary teachers, with possibilities in the secondary sector as well.
My last visit at BETT was made to the ‘Eye 2 Eye Britain’ stand, where I enjoyed using a fantastic product that had much to offer for schools – particularly geography and history departments. For a very reasonable price (just £99 or £159 for a network license), a school could have access to 1,650 panoramas and 11,000 photographs taken across the whole of Britain. These moving and interactive images can make stunning additions to whiteboard presentations, and are copyright free for use in student projects. These are not video extracts, but truly interactive 360 degree images that can be controlled and used for specific aims. There are numerous demonstrations, free samples and explanation videos at the web site, why not give it a try?
Although we all have free resources like Google and Bing at our fingertips, the ease of operation of this package makes it very accessible for both students and technologically challenged teachers. Both simple and reliable – Abdul Chohan would approve.